Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The Big One

I grew up in a little town called Eastbourne, in Wellington - the capital city of New Zealand. As a child I learned all about my country's curious geology and I knew that the country sat on two separate tectonic plates. I knew that there is a major fault line in the earth's crust which runs directly down the centre of New Zealand like an underground spine. I knew that it was this fault line - part of the Pacific Ring of Fire - which created our volcanoes, caused geothermal geysers and boiling mud pools. 

New Zealand's fault line

I also grew up in the knowledge that New Zealand has a propensity for earthquakes. Schools taught us all about them - we would practice drills where we all curled up under our school desks, peering out at our classmates to see if anyone had carelessly left a foot or a leg exposed. As children we were both scared of and excited by the whole idea of a major earthquake. Wellington was supposed to be particularly prone to quakes, and my class was regularly informed that given the position of the city, and with only two main roads heading north, if a big earthquake struck we would likely be trapped. For this reason we learned about stockpiling food and water. We learned that in an earthquake one should brace oneself in a steady door frame or under a sturdy table. The children in my class would watch black and white footage of the major earthquakes, including New Zealand's most renowned one: the Napier earthquake of 1931, which killed 256 people and flattened the city like a pancake. Afterwards, the teacher would flick the video off, stand before the class and tell us solemnly: "The Big One is well overdue." 

Despite the very terrifying notion that we were waiting for a disaster which was running late, it was volcanic eruptions and tsunamis which concerned me the most. The idea of having a wall of ocean or a sea of lava coming at you seemed so hopeless to me, and by comparison an earthquake was less frightening. I knew you couldn't outrun a tsunami - we learned that in school - but if an earthquake struck you could at least get into a doorway. I would have nightmares about trying to outrun rivers of volcanic lava, and when walking along the beach I would mentally plot the best routes into the hills in case I ever happened to see a tsunami rise out of nowhere. 

Eastbourne beach

Besides, I was used to earthquakes. In Wellington there are regularly little tremors, and on a couple of occasions, there were bigger ones which rattled the ornaments in my room and got everyone excitable. Yet the Big One we were warned about never felt like a realistic threat. Then adulthood arrived, and I left Wellington, and then eventually I left New Zealand altogether. In the UK earthquakes are a foreign concept. Apart from those opportunities where I could share my own knowledge with fascinated Brits at dinner parties, earthquakes were no longer something I thought about. The whole threat of the Big One had been archived in the recesses of my mind.

And then in September the Christchurch earthquake happened. The second biggest city in the country (bigger than Wellington), Christchurch suffered widespread damage. The quake surprised everyone in its ferocity, but amazingly, wonderfully, not a single person was killed. It was one of those moments when everyone counted their blessings, and pulled together in what was a truly scary situation. Yet just as everyone was getting over the shock, and focusing on recovering from the damage, today's major earthquake hit. And it looks like the Big One.

Just 3 miles beneath the surface, it was big enough to completely demolish buildings, turn ground into liquid, and create absolute destruction. Of course I say these things because I read the news, but actually, I can't even imagine it in real life. At least 38 people are confirmed dead, but the toll is expected to be a lot more grim as rescuers search through the rubble of the city. Even the beloved Christchurch Cathedral - New Zealand's Notre Dame - was toppled and broken, a rather poignant symbol of how much this city has been hurt. A quake like this is something which not even I, as a New Zealander, can comprehend.

Christchurch Cathedral, before and after

The one shining light through all of this is knowing that New Zealanders are hardy folk, and that kiwis know how to pull together. We are a country that is so far from everyone else that we are used to seeking help from one another. After all, when one part of New Zealand suffers, every New Zealander - across the globe - will grieve. I saw this happen at the time of the Pike River Mine disaster last November, when 29 men lost their lives, their bodies unable to be recovered. I didn't know these people, or their families, and I'd never even been to Greymouth, yet I shed real tears for them. It broke my heart. Other New Zealanders around the world spoke of their own heartbreak. Those are the moments you feel so far from home.

My heart breaks again today for Christchurch, and my thoughts go out to everyone who has been affected. I feel grateful that I am flying home to New Zealand in a few days for a wedding, because right now I want to give my homeland a hug, and to stand on my native soil. 

Kia kaha, Christchurch, we are all here for you. 


More information:

A relief fund is still being set up, but in the meantime the New Zealand Salvation Army
are accepting donations. Click Here To Donate

To share information on those missing or people who have been located, Click Here.

For more information on how to help, or for those who are in Christchurch Click Here.



  1. I've spent all day at work trying to offer support to friends from all around the world. Trying to reassure UK friends that my immediate family and friends are ok, but unsure how to explain that I feel my country's pain. I know what you mean about wanting to give your country a hug, please give one from me also. My latest post is also about the earthquake, the shaking, waking fear - http://www.vegemitevix.com/2011/02/the-trouble-is/

  2. You couldn't have put it better. I am a kiwi ex-pat who feels a million miles away from home today and wishes I could be back there to offer a little aroha :(
    I guess we do what we can to send friends our support, donate to the appeals and stay sadly glued to the dreadful news updates. Kia kaha.

  3. Beautifully put - I feel for your fellow countrymen too.